Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia

Hopkirk, Peter. The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia.

At first glance, Peter Hopkirk’s The Great Game looks like the typically massive tome describing the events or people of British and Russian competition in Central Asia during the 19th century.  Happily, Hopkirk’s volume goes above and beyond the rest to not only provide insight into the character of the men risking their lives in the deserts and passes of Central Asia for King and Country, but adds almost exhaustive detail regarding the events of the Great Game and the underlying assumptions that fed both British and Russian paranoia regarding their Asian frontiers.

Hopkirk organizes his work chronologically, breaking his chapters into three sections, each focusing on a different era, providing a discrete beginning, middle, and end.  Although the entire work is valuable and presents the events and personalities involved clearly and with much of the additional insight that is absent in other works, the first section, titled “The Beginnings” may be the most valuable.  This is particularly true for those unfamiliar with the details of the British conquest of India and Russia’s collective paranoia of invasion from the East after centuries of Mongol domination, which are both touched on in sufficient detail that the preoccupation of both sides with security of their borders is understandable.

The meat of The Great Game begins with the Mongol conquest and domination of Russia in the 13th century and the subsequent Russian overthrow of the Golden Horde in the 15th century.  Ivan the Terrible began the Russian colonization of Asia after defeating Kazan and Astrakhan, when he sent his people east across Siberia.  The colonization of Siberia was the beginning of the Russian quest for secure borders bounded by natural defenses, which would bring the conflict with the British Empire.

The background Hopkirk provides for the British-Russian conflict in Central Asia sets it apart from works like Tournament of Shadows by Meyer and Brysac because unlike them he provides the explanation for British paranoia regarding the defense of India from Russian expansion.  British paranoia was based on two factors: The primary factor being India’s economic importance to the British Empire, which caused it to be considered the “jewel of the Empire”.  The second factor was the long history of Russian attempts to move into areas that provided potential invasion routes to British India.  The first of these came in the reign of Peter the Great, who wanted to move his nation onto an equal economic and social footing with the rest of Europe.  After expensive wars with Sweden and Turkey, he decided to belatedly accept an offer from the Khan of Khiva to become his vassal, which Peter now saw as an easy way to gain a staging area to move forces into India to lay claim to the riches flowing to Europe from French and British possessions.  Treachery on the part of the Khan led to the complete destruction of the 4,000 officers and men of the Tsar’s delegation.  Only Peter the Great’s preoccupation with his expansion in the Caucasus regions prevented a punitive expedition back to Khiva.

Hopkirk details every conceivable Russian stratagem to move into Central Asia with an eye to occupying India, or at the least fomenting rebellion among its native populations.  Plans were made during the reign of Catherine the Great to march an army overland through Bokhara and Kabul to “restore” the Muslim-dominated Mughal Empire and raise the native subjects of British India in rebellion.  This plan came to naught, although Catherine did expand her domains in the Caucasus and conquer the Crimea.

A further early Russian attempt at an Indian invasion appeared under Tsar Paul I, who dispatched a force of 22,000 Cossacks supported by artillery to invade India and drive the British out while simultaneously freeing all Russian slaves in the region.  Only Alexander I’s accession to the throne prevented the invasion from going forward.  This expedition would have likely ended in disaster as it set out in the dead of winter and had only maps to Khiva, approximately halfway between India and Russia.  The Cossacks also had little information regarding terrain and scant provisioning for crossing the deserts that lay in their path.  It can only be assumed that the disaster would have been analogous to Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and the destruction of his Grande Armee.  To this point, the British were blissfully unaware of Russian designs on India, according to Hopkirk.

Hopkirk attributes the British awakening to the vulnerability of India to Napoleonic attempts to harass their interests and cut off their communications with the East by his invasion of Egypt, a key stop for couriers traveling east, rather than taking the 9-month voyage around Africa.  The Napoleonic threat happened to coincide with British diplomatic mishandling of their treaty with the Shah of Persia, with whom they had signed defense and commercial treaties.  When Russia invaded the Persian possession of Armenia, the British refused to assist Persia against the Russians, saying that the agreement was for an alliance against France and Afghanistan.  Hopkirk wisely sidesteps any discussion of whether the British acted correctly in the case, only noting that it would come back to haunt them.

The Shah’s irritation with the perceived British abrogation of the treaty provided an opening for a French treaty with Persia that modernized its military, ostensibly so the Persians could recover their lost territory in Armenia and Georgia.  British perceptions were that this new army would be used by the French to invade India, which was confirmed upon the discovery of a Franco-Russian agreement to divide the world between them, with Russia getting India.  If there had been any doubts regarding Russian interest in British India, this erased them.  In due course, Napoleon invaded Russia, which ended their joint plans for world domination, and British diplomats mended ties with Persia, promising to assist in the defense of Persia against all aggressors, even if they were technically allies of the British.  British advisors arrived to help with the Persian Army’s modernization and to map out the geographical approaches through Persia to India.

In discussing British and Russian (indeed European) interest in exploration and geography, Hopkirk again separates his work from those like Tournament of Shadows that merely describe characters and events.  Hopkirk goes beyond this to illustrate the how and why of exploration, while still focusing on the men performing the tasks.  Although the focus on methods and characters is important and interesting - The Great Game would be deadly dull if it were a dry analysis of events and political motives - the true value is in the discussion of why.

Hopkirk lays the beginning of anti-Russian sentiment in Great Britain squarely at the feet of Sir Robert Wilson, who returned from observing the Russian defense against Napoleon to immediately begin attacking the current vogue of romanticization of the Russian soldier.  Wilson used his experiences to paint a portrait of Russian and Cossack atrocities on the battlefield, and to claim that Russia was continuing to build its army and expand its territory in an effort to accomplish Peter the Great’s command to conquer the world.  Wilson showed this in pamphlets and books, pointing to Alexander’s acquisition of 200,000 square miles of territory and 13 million subjects, while increasing his army from 80,000 to 640,000.  Hopkirk supports his claim of Wilson as the original Russophobe by quoting his various publications and speeches.  The material presented is certainly convincing.  Russia’s subsequent attacks on the possessions of the Shah of Persia show that, at least in some respects, Wilson was right.  The Russian campaign saw numerous atrocities, including the bayoneting of 4,000 Persians who persisted in their defense of their stronghold of Lenkoran, located three hundred miles north of Tehran.

Tensions between Great Britain and Russia ebbed and flowed during the earlier to middle 19th century, including a decade long period of “detente”, including an uneasy peace.  This peaceful period came to a close with the Crimean War, which Hopkirk describes as a struggle revolving around issues that did not even involve British interests.  As a result of British involvement on the Turkish side of this dispute that arose from disagreements between the Turks and Russians over access to the Holy Land for pilgrims.  To distract the British, Russian agents convinced Persia to seize Herat by telling the Shah that the British were no longer concerned about defending this approach to India and would not be disturbed.  The British response was to bombard and seize Bushire, in the Persian Gulf, which persuaded the Shah to relinquish Herat again.

Although Hopkirk does not make an explicit connection between the Herat episode and Russian aggressiveness in Central Asian territorial expansion following the Indian Mutiny, it is obvious from the structure of his text that they are part of a related trend.  Part of the Russian advance involved the same types of exploration and intrigue that the British used.  In the Russian case, a Colonel Ignatiev, who visited Khiva to open its markets to Russian trade and gather intelligence, led it.  Ignatiev followed this visit by negotiating in Bokhara for the release of Russian slaves, trade access, and to avoid diplomatic contact with the British.  The Russians followed their intelligence gathering with conquests in Khokand, Khiva, and Bokhara.  Hopkirk claims that this activity had three goals: to further extend Russia’s borders and buffer areas, to open Central Asia to Russian trade in the hope of significant economic stimulus for the Russian economy, and to destabilize the British rule in India.

The Great Game  focuses on the continuing intrigue between Great Britain and Russia, especially the use of exploration and geographical societies to gather the intelligence of unknown lands for the defense of India, or its assault, depending on the point of view.  It is unnecessary to detail all of those adventures here, but it is important to acknowledge that in addition to the exploration of the passes from Afghanistan, Tibet, and Persia, Hopkirk includes the exploration of Chinese Turkestan in his narrative.  Particularly important is the sudden British realization that the passes of the Khyber were unnecessary for a successful invasion force.

Hopkirk concludes by questioning whether British concerns over a Russian invasion of India from the north were reasonable given the massive natural obstacles that lay in the way of such an undertaking.  He recognizes, though that this perspective is derived with the benefit of hindsight by modern historians, and acknowledges that to the actors it was an absolute possibility that required preparation of defenses.  Hopkirk’s work covers much the same territory as other volumes on the “Great Game”, but unlike them he combines an accessible narrative with the full scope of the conflict.  So, in addition to an easy read, the student receives all of the pertinent information regarding the conflict in Central Asia from the motives of both Russia and Great Britain, to the exploits of Vitkevich, Stoddart, Moorcroft, and Ignatiev, and the domestic political issues provided by the proponents of forward policy or masterful inactivity.  Hopkirk’s is certainly the most complete treatment of the subject available.         

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